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Showing posts from January, 2012

1001 Inventions that Changed the World – Jack Challoner (Ed.) **

It is hard to envisage how to do better at making a book that has clearly involved a lot of work, and that contains lots of interesting information, yet at the same time is quite so useless. This book derives from the series that started as things like 1001 Places to Visit before you Die or some such. That kind of application has a clear use – dip in, find somewhere to visit, visit it. But when you start applying it to inventions, it’s a bit different. It’s all nicely laid out with some interesting illustrations, but if you try to sit down and read through it, you will very soon give up. It’s just so dull. It doesn’t help that the inventions are in date order, so by page 100 you have only reached the pulley (750 BC). There are lots of wonderful inventions in here, everything from the stone axe to the Large Hadron Collider. And some pretty barmy things too. But why would you possibly want to read it? It’s impossible to read end to end (apart from anything else, it weighs a tonne)

Quantum Physics for Poets – Leon Lederman & Christopher Hill ***

I am always suspicious when a book makes a big thing about the author being a doctor. When you see ‘The Wonder of Vitamins’ by Fred Doser M.D., you just know it’s more about selling product than information. Although not quite as bad, I was a little put off by the way the cover of this book tells us it’s not by Leon Lederman, but Leon Lederman Nobel Laureate . Now don’t get me wrong, Leon Lederman, the scientist who came up with the nickname ‘God particle’ for the Higgs Boson is a real scientist, and is, indeed, a Nobel Prize winner. But I couldn’t help but find this splashing around of the fact a distraction rather than an aid. Was his Nobel Prize for explaining physics to ordinary folk? No. Does it make him any better at it? No. So why such a big thing of it? Once you’ve got past this branding, it’s certainly an interesting title. Unlike  The Cosmic Verses , this isn’t a book that’s all in rhyme, though admittedly a few poems do appear. It’s more a book that is intended to be re

17 Equations that Changed the World [In Pursuit of the Unknown] – Ian Stewart ***

There’s been a trend for a couple of years in popular science to produce ‘n greatest ideas’ type books, the written equivalent of those interminable ’50 best musicals’ or ‘100 favourite comedy moments’ or whatever shows that certain TV companies churn out. Now it has come to popular maths in the form of Ian Stewart’s  17 Equations that Changed the World . Stewart is a prolific writer – according to the accompanying bumf he has authored more than 80 books, which is quite an oeuvre. That can’t be bad. He is also a professional mathematician – a maths professor – and that potentially is a problem. The trouble is that, much more so than science, mathematicians are not ordinary people. They get excited about things that really don’t get other people thrilled. And it takes an exceptional mathematician to be able to communicate that enthusiasm without boring the pants off you. It’s notable that the most successful maths populariser ever, Martin Gardner, wasn’t a mathematician. So how doe

The Science Delusion – Rupert Sheldrake ***

Half of what’s in this quite chunky tome is excellent – the trouble is that I suspect the other bits, which aren’t so good, will put off those that really should be reading it. The fundamental message Rupert Sheldrake is trying to get across is that science typically operates in a very blinkered, limited way. And he’s right. He shows very convincingly the way that time and again scientists refuse to look at anything outside of a very limited set of possibilities, not because there is good evidence that these particular avenues should be ignored, but simply because of kneejerk reactions and belief systems. Of course science can’t examine every silly idea, fruitcake theory and dead-end observation, but the closed-mindedness of many scientists is quite extraordinary, and certainly not scientific. And in bringing this out, Sheldrake has a lot to offer in this book. He examines a whole range of assumptions that are generally made in science and never questioned – and this is a brillian